The week leading up to our road trip we talked a lot about doing our laundry and packing our bags, but of course, we left everything off until the last few hours before we were due to leave. The first leg of our journey would take us to the cutest Airbnb just outside of Taos, New Mexico. With over a 14-hour trip in front of us, we departed Rockport in the middle of the night at 12:30am.
Even in the best of conditions, an extra long late night drive can be incredibly daunting, but soon after passing through San Antonio the weather took a turn for the worse, and our cell phones blared with emergency flash flood warnings. As we traveled further into the hill country, we were forced to drive more and more slowly until we found a rest stop at the top of a hill. Sandwiched between several big-rigs, we waited out the heavy rain and floods for about 2.5 hours. I felt defeated for having to pull over so early in our journey, but Scott just shifted in the passenger seat so that I could climb over our center counsel to snuggle. I WISH we had a photo of the two of us trying to fall asleep squished together in the passenger seat of our car. I'm sure we looked just as uncomfortable as it felt, haha. None the less, I was able to doze off a bit and felt refreshed when we set off again.
Until you have had to drive through the whole of Texas, I really don't think you can understand how big Texas really is. Texas is ENORMOUS! I've driven across the state so many times, and it never gets easier. The roads seem to go on for eternity, and you can drive for several hours between towns. As we drove north-west, there was a steady drizzle as the temperature slowly dropped.
The last town in Texas on our route was called Farewell, how adorable is that? Neither of us has ever been west of Texas before so it was a fun milestone to reach New Mexico. I nearly missed seeing the Welcome to New Mexico sign as we crossed the state border. I sort of wish we had stopped to take a photo but had already been in the car for nearly 13 hours and to be honest we both had to pee. Not too far into New Mexico, we stopped in a small town to fill up our gas tank and grab some lunch. I can't for the life of me remember the name of the town, but the little 50's style diner we ate in had a good hamburger and lackluster french fries. Watching the mountain range emerge in the distance was exhilarating and helped fuel the last few hours of the drive to our Airbnb.
One of the reasons that we left in the middle of the night was that we knew our New Mexico Airbnb was located up in the mountains and we didn't want to drive on the roads after dark. I was warned several times as I booked the Airbnb, that it was located on the side of a mountain at a very high altitude; 8300ft to be exact. We started up the mountain on hairpin roads just as the sun was beginning to set behind the peaks. Y'all, locals in this area have NO FEAR and were absolutely careening around corners with no apparent regard for steep cliff drop-offs!
Travel Day 2
I've only ever used Airbnb once before, but I absolutely love that the service allows you to stay in unique places that you might not ever regularly stay in. Our little camper trailer was a total showstopper and extremely affordable. We arrived after almost 18 hours of driving, and we were utterly exhausted! After a quick dinner, we layered the bed with extra blankets and quilts and fell asleep almost instantly. The little RV heater did a great job of keeping us toasty all night even though the temperature had dropped nearly 15 degrees overnight! We slept in longer than I thought we would and woke up around 7am to find perfect little snowflakes and crystals on most of the elevated surfaces like the patio table, lawn chairs, and our car windows. I don't think it had actually snowed at this point, because the flakes didn't cover everything, but were just sparkling here and there. I tried so hard to capture a good picture of these, but I didn't feel like unpacking all of my luggage to dress more warmly since we were about to get in the car anyways to drive to Colorado. I would say that most of the fully formed flakes were only slightly larger than the tip of a ballpoint pen. I was ENCHANTED! I've seen snow a handful of times in my life, but I've never seen so many individually formed snowflakes!
As I was taking a few photos of the wooded area around our little camper, it started actually to snow quite heavily! We could actually feel the temperature drop as the snow fell around us. I absolutely loved exploring the wooded area around our camper. I've always enjoyed experiencing new and different types of ecosystems and environments, and this wooded area on the side of a mountain was like a playground to me! The tall trees at this altitude are so different than the squat mesquite and oak trees that we have on the Texas coast. I was particularly fascinated by the thick moss on the ground. You can see the fresh snowflakes on the moss second row of photos below. I could easily spend days roaming through the woods looking at all of the different plants, but we still had a six-hour drive to Fort Collins, Colorado.
Besides a bit of traffic through Denver, our drive up through Colorado was relatively easy, and we arrived at our next Airbnb with a few hours of daylight to spare to explore a bit of the area. Fort Collins is hands down one of the prettiest little towns I have ever been too. The neighborhoods had a sort of storybook charm without looking cookie-cutter, the historic/downtown area was extensive and inviting, and we found a really nice park to walk around. (We go on walks almost every night and having access to a sizeable lovely park to explore is always a huge bonus.)
Like I mentioned previously, we have only used Airbnb once before this road trip and after arriving at our Fort Collins Airbnb, we realized one of the possible... downfalls (for lack of a better word)... of booking less commercialized accommodations. Our little cabin had no bathroom. Y'all, NO TOILET! With a sudden realization, we knew that the 1 1/2 bath described on the Airbnb website would be located inside of the host's house. Now let me say, our hosts were lovely and very friendly, but it is so gosh darn awkward to use a stranger's bathroom. And to make matter feel even more awkward the bathroom had no lock on the doors, was located right off the kitchen (were the host's family seemed always to congregate) and was connected by a second door to one of the family members private bedroom. It was strange, and in all honesty, we tried to use the bathroom as little as possible. That being said, our small cabin was cozy, and Fort Collins was ideally located for day trips into the Roosevelt National Forest and the Rocky Mountain National Park.
Hike Day 1
On our first full day in Fort Collins, we woke up to a good few inches of snow on the ground, got breakfast at the Silver Grill Cafe (the longest running restaurant in northern Colorado), and set off towards our first hike in the Roosevelt National Forest. The Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest encompasses nearly 1.5 million acres and is located between the Rocky Mountain National park and the Wyoming border. We didn't do much research about hiking trails before we set out and figured we would eventually find park office or outpost with trail maps and information. As we drove higher into the mountains, the snow cover thickened, and we completely lost all cell signal.
Turns out that whatever road we were on, didn't have any sort of park office that we could find and all of the campgrounds and trailheads had been closed early because of the unseasonably early snow. Just driving through the mountains was breathe taking so we decided just to keep going up and see where the road would take us. We turned off the main road to follow a sign for a trail name that we recognized and quickly found ourselves on a steep, narrow, and unpaved road with room to turn around. The road had an icy and slushy quality to it as I drove about 10 miles an hour around the bends. It really felt more comical than scary, but boy am I glad that I don't have to drive on ice and snow usually. The mountain views we saw were totally worth the trouble and slightly stressful conditions. Just as Scott and I were laughing about how slowly I was driving and our hopes to find a safe place to turn the car around, I saw a school bus barreling around a corner behind us.
Y'all, this bus was flying up the snowy mountain road like a rally car and was quickly gaining on us. I was worried about making the bus driver angry being stuck behind my tentative driving, but thankfully there was a side road where we turned off just around the next corner, and we watched the school bus zoom past us. After walking around a little to stretch our legs, we started our tricky descent back down the mountain. We eventually found a parking area near a trailhead that wasn't gated off, so we pulled over, put on a few extra layers, and set off for our first official hike! So... the trail itself wasn't technically open, but since we had come all the way into the mountains for a hike... we decided to bend the rules a little. I definitely don't recommend for others to hike closed trails especially in areas that they are unfamiliar, but we were well dressed, had water and food, and have quite a bit of hiking and outdoor survival experience.
The trail started at a small RV and tent campground surrounded by yellow-leafed trees and followed along the side of a river. Everything was so quiet and serene. Snow was still falling steadily, and there was only a slight breeze in the air. As we started down the trail, I really noticed the sound of the snow crunching under my boots. Crunch is a fabulous word to describe the sound of snow being walked on and it was something I've never ever experienced before. I was in total AWE of the wintery landscape and barely even noticed the cold after a minute of walking. It snowed quite heavily most of our hike, which made it difficult to take photos, but I tried my best. You can sort of get an idea of how much snow was falling in the first two photos below.
I'm not sure how long or how far we hiked, but we had a ton of fun and felt very satisfied by the time we made it back to our car. We cruised back into Fort Collins just as the sun was setting and decided to have an easy dinner at Chick-fil-A before heading back to our little cabin. We decided to do a little more research for our next day of hiking, and a spent a few minutes researching the hiking trails that were still open in the Rocky Mountain National Park.
We had a few hours of daylight to explore more of Fort Collins, go to a fun and interactive science/history museum, and enjoy a walk in the park. The museum was obviously aimed towards children, but it still had informative Colorado history exhibits and was a treat to experience. We really enjoyed our time in Fort Collins and would absolutely revisit it. All of the locals we met were kind, helpful, and happy. The town was a good medium size that felt quaint, but still had tons of amenities.
Hike Day 2
With a much better plan in place for our next hike, we set off extra early to try to beat the potential crowds. We decided to try one of the most popular trails in the park, Emerald Lake Trail because we were able to confirm that it was still open despite the heavy* snowfall. (*I use the term heavy relative to what I am used to. I'm sure that locals wouldn't have considered the snowfall as heavy, just unseasonably early.) Apparently, during the summer this trail is so popular that the parking lot will fill up at dawn and latecomers have to take a shuttle from an overflow parking area about 40 minutes away. Luckily, the snowy weather really played in our favor, and the parking lot was only about a 1/4 full when we arrived. We generally try to avoid crowded trails, but specific hikes are so popular for a reason and this trail and the views it offered entirely justified its own popularity. Once again I was overwhelmed with utter awe of our surroundings. I can only describe it as an idealistic winter wonderland. The environment was so utterly different than anything I have ever experienced in my entire life, I couldn't stop smiling or looking around from side to side.
Snow is so beautiful, guys! It sparkles in the sunlight and it softens the sounds around you and it felt so peaceful to me. This was the first time that Scott and I have ever experienced a really fluffy sort of snow and everywhere we looked just looked like a Christmas card. I could try to talk poetically about this hike for years and years, but I won't subject y'all to that, haha! Instead, please enjoy some of my favorite photos from this hike!
We found out after our hike that this bird was a Stellar's Jay. It is closely related to a Blue Jay and is native to Western North America. This little fellow was amiable and flew around us for about 15 minutes as we took photos.
We were so lucky that the sun came out from behind the clouds just a bit as we were hiking, but one of the results of the extra sunlight was that the snow on the trail began to melt just enough to become extremely slippery as we started to head back down the mountain. There were several steep/stepped areas that nearly had us tumbling. We even saw one hiker resort to practically crawling down the steps because of how slippery it was. We all had a good attitude about it and just laughed as we struggled together. I personally loved experiencing this challenge that just doesn't happen in South Texas. More experienced snow hikers had fantastic spikes attached to their boots.
After hiking the Emerald Lake Trail and a couple of the smaller tail loops in the area, we headed back to the mountain town of Estes Park for a late lunch. Scott and I have a sort of tradition of looking for the best local pizza places while we are traveling and Estes Park two pizza joints to choose from. We picked Antonio's New York Pizza (on account of it's slightly higher google rating), and we ended up having one of our favorite pizzas yet! The "Greek" specialty pizza was piled high with fresh vegetables and had a perfect crust. We agreed that it ranked top 3 on our list.
We had a few hours of daylight to explore the Old Town portion of Fort Collins. I know I've said it already, but we really enjoyed our time in Fort Collins and would absolutely visit it again. All of the locals we met were kind, helpful, and happy. The town was a good medium size that felt quaint, but still had tons of amenities. I'd love to visit again during the spring/summer season.
Hike Day 3 - Plus Travel to Denver
We liked our trip to the Rocky Mountain National Park so much that we decided to return again to hike a different trail. We hiked around the Bierstadt Lake Loop area. The sun was out in full force for the first time since the start of our trip. After our hike, we ordered another pizza from Antonio's and set off for the Denver area for the next section of our journey.
We arrived at our next Airbnb in the early afternoon and were so thankful to confirm that it had a private bathroom and shower! The basement apartment was actually nicer than many hotels I've stayed in and featured a Tempur-Pedic bed, a waterfall shower, and a full kitchen. Really though, we were most excited not to share a bathroom with strangers. We thought about exploring the city but decided to take a much-needed nap instead. I often feel like I need to jam pack vacations with activities, but it is also essential to rest and relax.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science
We love visiting museums, and even though we had already been to another museum on this trip, we figured that the Denver Museum would still have lots to offer and boy were we glad that we decided to stop by! As soon as we walked in the doors, we were greeted and informed that it was a FREE day and no admission was required. NEAT! The museum was HUGE, and after three hours of exploration, we still hadn't visited every exhibit. We did pay an extra $5 each to experience their planetarium which was totally worth the cash considering we didn't pay general admission. I started to list out my favorite exhibits from the museum, and I realized that I included almost every exhibit in the building.
I won't spend too much time bragging, because I know it'll bother Scott to no end, but the whole reason we went to Colorado was for him to attend a Kajukenbo martial arts seminar and for him to be recognized as a black belt. Even though this was a national level gathering, we were still surprised to find more than a handful of other Texans in attendance, but I don't think anyone else actually drove from Texas.
Random Thoughts & Stats
Other than the sheer distance, the drive was relatively easy, except for in Denver. I did not enjoy driving on the icy highways or the terrible traffic in the Denver area. The high altitudes did not affect Scott or me nearly as much as we thought it might. I felt just a tad of dizziness when I woke up our first morning in New Mexico. Even though we didn't feel sick from the altitude, we did both seem to require more water than usual to remain well hydrated. Safeway grocery stores are pretty good, but they aren't HEB. Although, Scott did buy a decent breakfast burrito from Safeway, so that's pretty impressive. Hiking in the Rocky Mountains was one of the most awe-inducing experiences of my life.
Approx. miles driven: 2900 miles (rough guess)
States driven through: Texas, New Mexico, Colorado
Audio-books listened to: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Trails hiked: Unknown Closed Trails in Roosevelt National Forest, Emerald Lake Trail, Bear Lake Loop, Bierstadt Lake Loop, Mill Creek Trail (partial)
Approx. miles hiked: 15-20+ We often double back and explore off shoot trails so it is hard to tell exactly how far we've gone.
Pizzas consumed: 4
Selfies taken: 6 (weak selfie game >.<)
Photos taken with camera: 1011 (this is actually WAY less than I thought it would be)
Museums visited: 2, Fort Collins Museum of Discovery and Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Cities explored: Taos (New Mexico), Fort Collins, Estes Park, Arvada, Denver, Aurora
Movies watched: First Man
Number of times we had to scrape ice and snow off of the car windshield: 4
Wildlife seen: Stellar's Jay, Gray Jay, Elk, Bighorn Sheep, Least Chipmunk, a really fat squirrel, and some sort of mouse or rodent
Coldest temperature reported by car dashboard: 17 degrees (this is the lowest temperature I've ever experienced)
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog!